Ellesmere Island Winter Expedition March 2022 Trip Report

Introduction: As I have not as yet had a chance to sort, edit and process more than one or two photographs from the expedition I have instead included some of the snapshot memories made during the trip. I will post further photographs at a later date once I have had a chance to edit and process them.

In March of 2022 I co-led an all-new twelve-day test expedition to Ellesmere Island in Winter with fellow Nature Photographer David Gibbon. This expedition was in the planning for more than three years and was the net result of a long-time dream to try and photograph the near-mythical White Arctic Wolf in winter. The expedition was originally scheduled to run in 2020, but the COVID pandemic saw us delayed until 2022.

For those unfamiliar, Ellesmere Island is located in the far north of Nunavut in the northernmost region of Canada and is one of the most remote and isolated landmasses on earth. Very few people ever visit this far northerly island and even fewer do so in the depths of winter. Of those few that do visit the small town of Grise Fiord, even fewer will venture north outside the perimeter of the town on a winter expedition. Just to get to Grise Fiord requires not less than five flights from Ottawa, Canada – Ottawa to Iqaluit, Iqaluit to Pond Inlet, Pond Inlet to Arctic Bay, Arctic Bay to Resolute, and then finally a Twin Otter from Resolute to Grise Fiord. In Winter, flights are never certain and we were delayed a day in both Iqaluit and Resolute on our way to Grise Fiord due to poor weather and canceled flights. We always expected potential days (it is the Arctic in winter after all) and had built in some extra time for this eventuality. We actually put a dedicated charter on standby from Resolute to Grise Fiord in case of further delays but were thankfully able to use our original tickets into Grise Fiord.

To our knowledge, this was the first dedicated group photographic expedition to Ellesmere in search of the white wolf in winter. It was an incredible life-changing experience for me personally and I want to sincerely thank all the participants for all their efforts during the expedition. This sort of extreme expedition requires not less than 100% commitment and support from all participants. I am grateful to all who participated for making it such a successful and safe endeavor. I want to reserve an extra special thank you to all our Inuit guides who made this expedition possible. Their dedication, commitment, and supernatural ability to deal with the extreme cold made this expedition a reality. It simply would not have been possible without their assistance.

Our intention for this expedition was to head north from the small remote community town of Grise Fiord via snowmobile in search of wildlife. The town itself comprises roughly 130 people only and has no hotel. A small shared dorm-style accommodation is all that is available that served as our launch point for the expedition. We deliberately kept our itinerary open and flexible in order to adapt to the weather and conditions we experienced along the way. You never know what you are going to experience on an expedition such as this and flexibility and adaptability are two key factors to the success of such a trip.

Our expedition team consisted of myself, David, three clients, and four local Inuit guides for a total of nine people. We had intended to take four clients but sadly lost one last minute to a COVID close contact. Marco, you were dearly missed. An expedition such as this into the remote wilderness in the Arctic Winter requires a lot of equipment, food, and fuel. We utilized four snowmobiles, all pulling sleds, that allowed us to take all the equipment we needed for our time in the field. Our first planned stop was a very remote hut on the edge of the sea ice that has been used by local hunters for years. Located approximately 120 kilometers north of Grise Fiord, the cabin is really little more than four aged wooden walls and a roof with a small diesel stove for heat. As it turned out, this would be our primary base for the duration of the expedition. Although extremely basic, it served as protection from the elements and a place to escape (even briefly) the extreme cold.

We had originally planned to head as far north as Eureka, but it quickly became apparent that we could not carry enough fuel and that there was a terminal issue with one of the snowmobiles that meant we had to abandon it about eight hours into the expedition. Losing a snowmobile on day one limited our options and we took the decision to use the hunters’ cabin as a base and let the wildlife come to us and search locally when possible. As it turned out, we did little searching via snowmobile. Experience quickly showed us that all of the wildlife was extremely shy of the engine noise and would run long before we got close to it. Instead, we did our best to remain as quiet as possible in the hope that wildlife would get curious and approach us voluntarily. This strategy proved most successful as you will read below. We did undertake a full-day trip to Vendom Fiord, where we found Musk Ox and Arctic Fox. This particular day was probably our coldest. It was the first time I have ever experienced air temperatures so cold that the air is quite literally frozen. There are no words to accurately describe the feeling of temperatures on the human body once they dip below -50º C – suffice to say it was BRUTAL.

Temperatures during the expedition ranged between -32º Celsius and somewhere south of -50º Celsius plus wind chill. Hard to say exactly how cold it was as our thermometer bottomed out at -50ºC and the mercury fell significantly below that on multiple occasions. I would guess that the air temperature fell to somewhere around -55ºC or below and probably around -65ºC with wind chill. Mercifully, we had little wind chill most days and were blessed with consistently good weather throughout the expedition. In these sorts of temperatures, it is critical to survival to be properly dressed and equipped. We were acutely aware of the potential for frostbite and took all the necessary precautions. Even so, both David and I ended up with some frostnip on our noses and fingers.

During the expedition we had absolutely superb photographic encounters with Arctic Hare; often in beautiful soft evening light. We discovered a burrow and den area roughly a kilometer walk from our cabin that consistently provided outstanding opportunities for both Arctic Hare and Ptarmigan. As such, we were able to time our photographic sessions in the best light of the day. We also had a couple of great opportunities with Arctic Fox; including a fox on the remains of a Musk Ox carcass. We did see Musk Ox, but at too great a distance to photograph.

Although we had two separate sightings of the white Arctic Wolf, they remained elusive photographically. I personally spotted two wolves moving from right to left in poor light at the limit of my vision through my binoculars around day four of our expedition. There was a low fog at the time and I could not be sure if they were wolves or Polar Bear (they appear similarly colored). Initially, I believed they were wolves because of their distinct ‘lope’. However, when they separated, with one wolf staying behind a piece of ice and the second moving toward me they appeared much more like Polar Bear. This sort of behavior is very typical of a mother and cub; when the mother stashes the cub before she begins to stalk her prey. Alone, two kilometers from our base camp and without a weapon, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and quickly retreated back to base camp. In hindsight, I wish, of course, I had stayed as this would likely have proved an incredible photographic encounter. I did return quickly on snowmobile to investigate and discovered fresh wolf tracks and fresh scent marking. However, the wolves had disappeared into the white wilderness like ghosts.

The second sighting was early in the morning before sunrise on our last day. Two wolves had come in close to our camp to the Musk Ox remains to scavenge. Unfortunately, they moved away before we discovered them and were at binocular-only range by the time we dressed and prepared. One of the downsides to Arctic winter photography is you can’t just grab a camera and run outside when the temperature is hovering -50ºC. It takes quite some minutes to properly dress and prepare to go outside. Even an evening call of Nature requires a few moments of preparation before emerging from a warm sleeping bag.

Despite the lack of photographic opportunities with the Arctic Wolves, we had an incredible expedition and fabulous wildlife photographic opportunities with the wildlife we encountered. We also had some really unique and unexpected cultural experiences with the Inuit. I am not normally a cultural photographer but enjoyed this unexpected bonus. We always knew it was going to be tough to find and photograph the rare and elusive White Wolves. What we didn’t know, was how difficult travel would be across the land in the snowmobiles and sleds. The transit across the landscape was exceptionally rough, bouncy, and tough. The extreme cold is really only part of the difficulties of an expedition at this time of year. The difficulty navigating the landscape proved equally challenging to the cold.

Experience has now also shown us that the importance of getting as far north as possible cannot be underrated. There is very significant hunting pressure around Grise Fiord which results in skittish hard to photograph wildlife. Sadly, this region of the Arctic still allows and even actively encourages the hunting of Polar Bear, Caribou, and Musk Ox. As photographers, we need to get as far away from this pressure as possible to give ourselves the best possible opportunities.

We will be making some adjustments to our expedition for 2023 based on our learning experience in 2022. Mostly, these adjustments relate to pre-prepared fuel drops (to allow us to travel further) and reducing our group size to just two clients per trip. In effect, we are going to split our planned expedition with four clients into two separate trips of two people plus one leader per trip. This will significantly lower the weight we need to carry per expedition, reduce burned fuel and allow us to travel furthermore easily. It will also further reduce pressure on the wildlife when we have encounters. Streamlining our 2023 expeditions should allow us to reach the Eureka area and also increase further our chances of finding and photographing the White Wolf.

Our 2022 test expedition was an incredible experience that has left both David and I wanting more and very much looking forward to our 2023 expeditions to this incredible remote island in Winter. Make no mistake; Ellesmere Island in Winter is one of the very last bastions of true wilderness. It is not for the faint of heart, or those looking for a luxurious photographic experience.  Both our planned 2023 expeditions are long sold out, but we will soon be taking bookings for 2024. If you feel you have the right stuff for this sort of expedition please drop me an email to register your interest and for a discussion on the physical requirements and suitability. For 2024 we will only be taking two people per expedition so places are extremely limited.

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